After a successful yet surprising breeding effort, about 20 baby seadragons are being cared for behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass.
In May 2022, Aquarium staff discovered a male weedy seadragon carrying eggs inside his exhibit space. Eight weeks later, the eggs hatched, and aquarists have been raising the hatchlings behind the scenes until they are big enough to join the adult seadragons on exhibit this summer.
As part of its commitment to sustainability, the Aquarium breeds multiple species of fish at its main building on Boston’s Central Wharf and at its Animal Care Center in Quincy, Mass. Seadragons are delicate animals with a small native range in the waters along Australia’s southern coast, which makes them natural candidates for in-house breeding programs. After some success raising seahorses—which share many similarities when it comes to reproduction, including the fact that the male is responsible for carrying eggs—the Aquarium began seadragon breeding efforts in 2008, which proved extremely challenging.
“Seadragons have an elaborate vertical mating ritual, swimming side-by-side as the female transfers her eggs to the male’s tail to fertilize and carry them,” said Jeremy Brodt, manager of permanent galleries. “The amount of daylight, water temperature, nutrition, and tank size must be just right for the animals to be successful, and even then, the eggs may still be dropped or end up unfertilized.”
Multiple breeding attempts and more than a decade later, the Aquarium team had nearly given up hope of ever seeing a successful egg transfer on exhibit when they were thrilled to find an adult pair had unexpectedly mated.
“All the stars aligned, and it just happened,” Brodt said.
From there, Brodt and his team, including Senior Aquarist Allison Waltz-Hill, moved the male seadragon off exhibit and into a quieter space behind the scenes, allowing for additional observation to monitor appetite and behavior as the eggs incubated. The hatchlings, which measured just two centimeters at birth, have grown to about six inches long over the past nine months.
Aquarium visitors can stop by the second floor to see adult seadragons in their newly refurbished exhibit and watch footage of the babies behind the scenes. Some hatchlings will likely join the exhibit tank over the summer, though several may move to other aquariums to help diversify genetics for future breeding efforts.
“This rare opportunity has provided us with an invaluable learning experience and the ability to contribute to further the collective knowledge and well-being of this species,” said Waltz-Hill.
Photos Credit: © New England Aquarium
Edited by Sarah Gilsoul, a writer and communications program assistant at AZA.